- War Don Don, and: Fambul Tok
The West African coastal country of Sierra Leone endured devastating civil warfare from 1991–2002. In the aftermath, the Sierra Leonean government invited the United Nations to establish an international war crimes tribunal to try those “most responsible” for the rape, amputation, and other atrocities forced upon the civilian population after 1996, when a new coalition government fueled the pillage of lives and resources instead of mitigating it. Neighboring Liberian head of state Charles Taylor and thirteen other commanders representing three indistinct combatant groups – civilian defense forces (CDF), state-sponsored soldiers (AFRC), and Revolutionary United Front rebels (RUF) – were indicted and tried by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. In addition, the Sierra Leonean courts, engaging both formal and customary law, tried other selected commandoes for war-related crimes. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was also established, sponsored by both the United Nations and Sierra Leone. From 2002 – 2004 the TRC assembled evidence and testimony for an “impartial” historical record, intended to be the basis for historical and personal understandings, not by the country’s courts or the Special Court. Despite these efforts, a great many offenses in this war remained inadequately addressed. Victims and combatants returned (or not) to destroyed communities, personal trauma, and ravaged economies.
Two recent documentaries focus on distinct Sierra Leonean reconciliation processes performed by the judiciary and by arbitration. Neither Sierra Leone’s judiciary nor the arbitration practices popular in the countryside are enough to [End Page 81] redress Sierra Leone’s massive war wounds. Both have been augmented for application in the war’s aftermath.
Rebecca Richman Cohen’s War Don Don, (“the war is over” in Krio, Sierra Leone’s lingua franca) explores the Special Court’s treatment of RUF commander Issa Sesay, one of the indicted who lived to stand trial. While a student at Harvard Law, Cohen interned with the defense in the AFRC-accused case (2004-2007) and returned to film the RUF-accused segment of the trial that began in 2004 and ended in 2009. Acclaimed as insightful critique of international justice, War Don Don highlights charges against the Special Court itself levied by Sesay’s competent defense. The defense claims that Sesay is a scapegoat, unfairly and mistakenly singled out from combatant leaders for Special Court prosecution. They claim that Sesay’s personal involvement in war crimes (forced labor, child conscription, rape, mutilation, sexual slavery) is uncertain, and they assert that Sesay’s leadership in bringing peace by fronting RUF’s surrender and disarmament near the end of the conflict merits more leniency than his 50-plus year concurrent sentences reflect.
War Don Don’s communion with the defense offers substantial argument about imperfections of international justice, about inequities of blame, and about compromised motives of witnesses provided materially improved lives in protective relocation. It follows from the defense’s argument that none of the indicted combatants may reasonably bear responsibility for this war’s horror due to the diffusion of responsibility and the inability for any international body to properly adjudicate it. But the Special Court would absolve perpetrators only at great cost to Sierra Leone’s war-weary citizens and to an international community legitimately concerned with limiting clemency for war criminals.
Special Court Chief Prosecutor David Crane (2002-2005) summarizes a central question facing arbiters of war: “Is the justice we [in this case, the international community] seek the justice they [Sierra Leoneans] want?” Falsely secure that it is, Crane over-blows rhetoric on the “army of evil,” and the soullessness he discerns in the eyes of the accused. Crane’s turgid opening remarks in the Sesay case (“these dogs of war, these hounds from hell unleashed…”) draw satisfying approbation from Special Court Judge Benjamin Itoe. (In closing titles filmmakers note that Crane later became a commentator for NBC’s reality TV show The Wanted, a post more befitting his colorful rhetoric than that in which we make his acquaintance.) Crane’s flagrant demonizing of the indicted only...